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Forget the process, Suns master The Purge

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The Phoenix Suns have mothballed their oldest and best players, tanking hard for a draft pick.

Phoenix Suns v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Let’s take a walk down short-term memory lane. Remember when the Phoenix Suns were overplaying their veterans, not giving the team’s youngest players enough run?

That was only one month ago.

On February 13, in a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans 110-108 at home, the last place 17-39 Suns gave their 30+ year old players (Tyson Chandler, P.J. Tucker, Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley) more than 85 minutes of game time, while the rookies (Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis and Derrick Jones Jr.) and Alan Williams played a grand total of 16 minutes.

Back in mid-December, I detailed how Suns coach Earl Watson wasn’t giving his young players enough minutes. I showed that the December 2016 “playing age” rotation was actually the OLDEST December rotation the “rebuilding” Suns had had in years.

The grand plan was to help bring the best young guys along in stages while still trying to win games. Devin Booker (age 19 to start the season) came first, then Marquese Chriss (19 all season) and soon to be Dragan Bender (18 to start the season) and then Tyler Ulis (20). Watson hoped the 30-somethings would balance the inexperience and win enough games to keep the Suns competitive. But that wasn’t working, as the Suns limped to an 8-18 record through December 16 when I published that report.

Since then, a great deal has changed.

The Purge

On March 17, in a game the Suns lost to the Orlando Magic 107-101 at home, the second-to-last place 22-47 Suns gave their 30+ year old players (only Jared Dudley and Ronnie Price this time) some 36 minutes of game time, while the rookies (Marquese Chriss, Tyler Ulis and Derrick Jones Jr.) and Alan Williams played 100 minutes of game time.

Now that’s more like it.

Since the deadline, the Suns have trotted out the youngest starting lineup in franchise history. Last week’s starting lineup of Ulis, Booker, Warren, Len and Chriss averaged just over 21 years and 8 months old.

They now have the second-youngest “rotational age” of any 10-man rotation in the league.

P.J. Tucker (traded), Brandon Knight (ego) and Tyson Chandler (rest) are all completely out of the Suns rotation for the past month. Veterans Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa are still getting minutes but only rank 7th and 8th in the new rotation. Once Dragan Bender returns, that might change again.

But when the Suns kept inexplicably winning (wut!) too many games, they went one better.

Last week, they pastured their best player, Eric Bledsoe, for the rest of the season. His minutes were supposed to be replaced by Brandon Knight, but instead Knight will remain out and Ronnie Price or some D-League guy (Jared Eddie?) will fill any gaps Tyler Ulis and Leandro Barbosa can’t manage. Ulis has played almost 40 minutes per game since Bledsoe was declared out.

Who’s rotation is younger than the Suns’, you ask?

How bout them Lakers!

Lakers-minutes-weighted-age-March-2017

Since the break, summer signings Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov are totally out of the Lakers’ rotation in favor of young players. The only veterans left in the lineup are Nick Young and Corey Brewer, both 31 years old now.

The Lakers are now so bad they recently overtook the Suns for second-worst in the league - a move they needed to make to continue their rebuild because they will lose the pick if it falls out of the top 3.

Who else is younger lately

The Magic have gotten a bit younger after trading Serge Ibaka (age 27) to Toronto to move Aaron Gordon (21) back to the power forward position. They have also reduced minutes to veterans Jeff Green (30), D.J. Augustin (29) and C.J. Watson (33) but have not taken them totally out of the rotation (yet).

The Portland Trailblazers have actually gotten slightly younger since the break, but that’s mainly because Evan Turner and Ed Davis have dealt with injuries, while Plumlee (27) was swapped for Nurkic (22).

Which teams have gotten older?

On the other end of the spectrum, some teams have gotten older since starting the year with a really young playing rotation.

Partly due to injury (Zach LaVine) and partly to coach Thom Thibodeau, the Wolves have gotten OLDER in the past few months and are now winning more games as a result. In addition to LaVine being out, rookie Kris Dunn has largely fallen out of the rotation as well while Rubio and Brandon Rush get more time.

Same with the Denver Nuggets, who are playing all of Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Jameer Nelson, Will Barton and Mason Plumlee (26-35 years old) more minutes than anyone but Gary Harris (22) and Nikola Jokic (22) as they fight for the playoffs. These are the same Nuggets who started the year with almost as many young guys as the Suns. But now Emmanuel Mudiay (21) is completely out of the rotation and Jusuf Nurkic (22) was traded, while Jamal Murray (20) and Juancho Hernangomez (21) are 8th and 9th in minutes since the trade deadline. Once Kenneth Faried returns from injury, that likely takes Juancho out as well.

This goes to show that coach Earl Watson isn’t the only NBA coach who’s figured out you are more likely to win games with veterans than with kids.

Or conversely, if you want to lose games you play your youngest players and bench the veterans.

The tank is on

Several teams are actively tanking their way to the best possible pick.

We talked about the Magic and Lakers above. A lot of the Sixers’ youngest guns are out of the picture - Joel Embiid (knee) and Ben Simmons (foot) and Nerlens Noel (traded), which hurts their rebuild once again. But they still have Dario Saric, a Rookie of the Year candidate, another rookie in Timothe Luwawu-Caberot and Jahlil Okafor who are 23 or under.

The Magic and Sixers are hot on the tail of the Suns for 3rd place in the reverse standings, but the Suns front office is doing a good job to hold onto that spot. I wouldn’t put it past McDonough to bench the rookies too if they keep winning.

Ahhh, the Nets. They are a disaster, very little youth and no franchise-changing draft picks on the horizon. Boston gets to swap picks with the Nets this year (dropping the Nets likely from 1st to around 25th!), and then just take the Nets’ pick next year outright. GM Sean Marks will certainly try the big-money RFA route again this summer, but he tried and failed that last year.

With a bakers dozen of games left in the NBA season, the Suns have clearly positioned themselves in the have-not group and are doing everything they can to stay there no matter how many other teams try to out-bad them. Even if Jarell Eddie has to lead them in points scored.